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Betrayal on the Couch : O.C. Group Helps Victims of Therapist-Client Abuse

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For two years, Alice felt as if she had fallen under the seductive spell of a powerful Svengali--her psychologist.

Alice went into therapy with her doctor in the mid-1980s seeking help for her troubled marriage. What she got from him, instead, was sex.

“When we were behind closed doors in a therapy session, it was beautiful,” said the 42-year-old Cerritos woman. “It was bliss. He said he could help me. I believed he was my savior . . . my Prince Charming.”

“I told him what was missing in my life, and he filled in the blanks,” Alice said. He did everything she felt her husband wasn’t doing. “He paid attention . . . really listened to me . . . and really nurtured me.”

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For the next two years, Alice, a mother of two, went to her appointment at the psychologist’s office nearly every Friday afternoon. The door was closed, the lights were dimmed, and the doctor and patient made love.

“I walked around in a trance for two years,” Alice said. “I didn’t care about my husband. I didn’t care about my kids. I was completely under my doctor’s thumb.”

But one day the trance broke.

“I all of a sudden realized that the therapist was sicker than I was,” she said. “I’d been exploited.”

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Today, Alice (not her real name) has a civil lawsuit pending against her former doctor. She also filed a complaint with the California Medical Board, a licensing agency that regulates doctors.

Alice has accused her doctor of using his position of trust and power to take advantage of her and seduce her. She claims the relationship with her doctor destroyed her emotionally and was devastating to her family.

Alice’s experience is not isolated. Recent studies indicate that as many as 10% of therapists--most of them men--engage in sexual relationships with their patients. Eighty percent of those who have reported having sex with their patients admit to having had similar contact with more than just one client.

In California, any kind of sexual contact or sexual misconduct by a psychotherapist with a client is illegal as well as unethical. Experts in the fields of psychiatry and psychology agree patients can suffer significant harm from such relationships and that it is the responsibility of the therapists not to cross the line.

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Because the experiences can be so traumatic for some patients, many are forming support groups around the country to help each other cope with the feelings of guilt, distress and depression.

Alice belongs to such a group in Orange County, called the California Consumers for Responsible Therapy.

At a recent meeting, Alice joined seven other women in discussing their therapy experiences. The women--many of whom have filed civil lawsuits against their former therapists--meet twice monthly at different homes to offer each other emotional support and share information on the issue of therapist-client abuse.

The group also refers patients to other doctors and lawyers who specialize in assisting people who feel they have been abused.

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“The group is important because it helps you understand that you are not alone and this has happened to others,” Alice said. “It is such a painful subject.”

Peter Rutter, a San Francisco psychiatrist and author of “Sex in the Forbidden Zone: How Men in Power--Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers & Others--Betray Women’s Trust” (Jeremy P. Tarcher Inc., 1989) believes the problem of men in power engaging in sex with their patients or clients behind closed doors has reached epidemic proportions.

“We are just beginning to scratch the surface on (the number of incidents) of sexual boundary violations by professional men . . . including doctors, therapists, male clergy, lawyers and others,” Rutter said.

In his book, Rutter notes that he once believed that the “only doctors and therapists who had sexual relations with patients were . . . confined to the lunatic fringe, such as the surgeon who sexually assaulted his female patients after placing them under anesthesia, or the occasional therapist who would establish a ‘therapeutic’ commune conveniently populated by women willing to be his sexual partners.”

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But his experiences as a psychiatrist and research worker have since led him to conclude otherwise.

“I discovered, instead, that sexual exploitation by men of women under their care or tutelage is not unusual and, in actuality, is quite common,” he wrote in his book.

For years, many women who accused their doctors or therapists of engaging in sex with them were viewed by other professionals as simply “delusional or making it up,” according to Rutter.

“Then too many people came forward (to complain) and too many men were caught red-handed in this situation” to ignore it any longer. Studies show that the percentage of false accusations made against doctors and therapists is “minuscule,” Rutter said.

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“I also found that the men who have sex with their female patients are the successful men in our world,” he said. “They are accomplished professionals, admired community leaders and respectable men whose integrity we take for granted.”

“These highly eroticized entanglements can occur, behind closed doors, in any relationship in which a woman entrusts important aspects of her physical, spiritual, psychological or material welfare to a man who has power over her,” Rutter says in his book.

The very nature of the patient-therapist relationship creates a powerful feeling of closeness and trust as patients reveal personal thoughts and intimate details of their lives to the doctors.

Because of the close relationship, many patients, say professionals, may begin to feel a strong attachment or sexual attraction to their doctors. Despite the temptation, they say, it is the responsibility of the therapists not to cross the line and engage in any kind of sex or emotional relationship with their patients.

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Ann Bernsen, one of the founders of California Consumers for Responsible Therapy, alleged in court documents that she had a two-year affair with her Santa Ana therapist, Dr. Gerald Sjule. Bernsen subsequently sued him and won an out-of-court settlement. Bernsen declined to reveal the amount.

After another patient came forward with similar allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse, Sjule voluntarily relinquished his psychologist and marriage-counselor licenses in 1986 in settlements with the state Board of Behavioral Sciences Examiners and the Psychology Examining Committee, according to court documents.

Bernsen and her husband had originally sought therapy from Sjule for marital problems in 1980. They started out by seeing him together. Later, the doctor began seeing Ann separately and a love affair commenced.

“He became my lifeline. . . . I was totally dependent on him.” she said. Like Alice, Bernsen claims that her doctor preyed upon her vulnerabilities and her unhappiness in her marriage, and betrayed her trust.

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The affair ultimately broke up her family. Her marriage ended in divorce, and she gave up custody of her children and even attempted suicide--all for the love of her therapist, she says nearly a decade later.

“Emotionally and mentally, I fell apart,” Bernsen said. “In giving up the kids, I thought he would want me if I didn’t have the dependents. . . . There was a point when I would have done anything to make a commitment to him. I still shudder when I think of it. . . . I lost so much.”

She has since put her life back together again. One of her children now lives with her, and she is studying toward a career in social work.

But the damage is still there, she said.

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“You have to be tough” to file civil action against your doctor, Bernsen said. “Whether you are trying to right a wrong or protect the public, or give yourself self-empowerment, I think everybody will tell you the (court) process can be very abusive.”

Julia Peck, another founder of the group, knows firsthand how painful a court battle can be. So does the doctor she sued.

Peck, a 48-year-old Fullerton bookkeeper, sued Dr. Melvin Schwartz, a Santa Ana therapist, for allegedly acting inappropriately by embracing her during therapy sessions.

Peck’s case went to trial and she lost.

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“It was the worst experience I had ever had in my whole life,” said Peck after the jury rejected her allegations and found in favor of Schwartz.

Peck, who had a history of depression, went into therapy with Schwartz after she once expressed suicidal thoughts in a note to her husband. Peck claimed Schwartz gave her special treatment and made her completely dependent on him.

“I would live from week to week for our sessions together,” Peck said. “I had a new outfit every week. . . . I didn’t care about my family. I was a workaholic during that time. If I couldn’t be working, I would be at home in bed or taking several pills so I would sleep the whole weekend.”

Although she says they never kissed, or had sexual relations, her doctor’s hugs at the end of each therapy session were of a sexual nature. Consequently, her relationship with the doctor further damaged her emotional condition rather than improved it, she claimed.

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Schwartz disagreed. He denied acting improperly and described the embraces as a “reassuring hug” and as a “caring gesture from one human being to another.”

Although he won in court, Schwartz said the case was also an ordeal for him. The doctor felt that he was “more the victim than the perpetrator of therapeutic abuse.”

“Even well-experienced psychiatrists,” he said, “may be subjected to exploitation and abuse by patients who are manipulative.”

Schwartz’s defense attorney, Robert Silberstein, described Peck’s attachment to the doctor as a kind of “fatal attraction.” Schwartz contends that once he realized his patient had sexual feelings for him, he tried to persuade her to go to another therapist. But she refused, and he grew concerned about her behavior.

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Schwartz said that when he tried “to transfer her care to a female therapist to minimize this problem, the (Peck) responded with vindictiveness and rage to what she viewed as an abandonment rather than recognizing that it was a therapeutic transfer.”

Peck denies the doctor urged her to seek another therapist or that she acted vindictively.

“Those are absolute lies,” she said.

Although she lost her court fight, Peck said she doesn’t regret suing the doctor.

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“I did what I thought was right,” she said. “I was told by another psychologist that I had a moral obligation to do it. That he had to be stopped. I did my best. If it didn’t accomplish anything else, maybe it has made him think twice about how he conducts himself in therapy.”

Law Defines Misconduct

Under California law, sexual contact can range from fondling to sexual intercourse. Sexual misconduct can include kissing, nudity, spanking, as well as sexual suggestions, overtures and innuendoes.

The 1989 state law makes it a crime for therapists to have sexual contact with a patient, even after a professional relationship has ended. Offenders should be reported to the police and to the licensing boards that regulate doctors.

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For a first offense, a therapist would be charged with a misdemeanor. Second and subsequent offenses could result in misdemeanor or felony charges. If convicted, the therapist could be sentenced to up to one year in prison and fined up to $5,000.

The three licensing boards that regulate therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists are the California Medical Board, Board of Psychology and the Board of Behavioral Science Examiners. These agencies investigate allegations of therapist abuse and can revoke doctors’ licenses.

For information on the support group California Consumers for Responsible Therapy, write to P.O. Box 2194, Garden Grove, Calif., 92642-2194, or call (714) 870-8864.

“Professional Therapy Never Includes Sex,” a book issued by the California Department of Consumer Affairs, offers some examples of inappropriate behavior by a therapist that might serve as warning signs to patients. Beware, if a therapist or doctor:

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* Tells sexual jokes or stories.

* Gives seductive looks to the patient or sits too close.

* Discusses the therapist’s sex life or personal relationships.

* Dates the patient or invites him or her to lunch, dinner or other social activities.

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* Schedules the patient for late appointments when no one else is around or holds sessions away from the office.

* Relies on the patient for personal and emotional support.

* Receives or gives significant gifts.

* Hires a patient to do work for the therapist or barters goods or services to pay for therapy.

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